Creative thinking and problem-solving are two elements found at the heart of many adventure games. The act of discovering objects and managing inventories challenges players to identify when and where to use certain items in order to progress.
Trackless from 12 East Games and developer Aubrey Serr takes this concept one step further. Inspired by genre classics like Zork, Trackless tasks players with typing contextual inputs to determine how to take advantage of an object or situation. With a score tracker that accounts for creativity and uniqueness of each word entry, Trackless hopes to combine the imaginative gameplay of a text-based adventure with a modern audio-visual presentation.
Unfortunately, good ideas don’t necessarily translate into good execution. From start to finish, Trackless lacks the polish and detail necessary to make for a fun and compelling experience.
After an initial loading screen with the game’s title, Trackless begins without so much as a start menu. An unnamed protagonist rides on a train to an unknown destination. His small train car is filled with several items of notice, from his cat to a TV, VCR player, and game console. After a few minutes of tinkering around in this cabin, the player arrives at a train station—accompanied by a change in scenery and a pulse-pounding EDM track—before being set loose to explore.
Trackless controls in the vein of traditional adventure games. By examining objects and people of interest, the player uncovers additional descriptions and dialogue to help gain a better understanding of the game’s world and characters. Clicking on the cat, for example, reveals the fact that it is sleeping soundly, while examining a man in an adjacent cabin uncovers details about his anxiety issues.
Differentiating Trackless from similar adventure games is the inclusion of contextual player input. While inspecting certain items, the game prompts players to type in a word to advance. This creates common riddle-like situations. A VHS is dangling precariously out of a VCR? Type ‘push’ and then ‘play’ to prompt a brief cinematic on a nearby television screen. It’s a simple, but interesting take on text-adventures that rewards ingenuity and forward-thinking.
At least, it should, on paper. In reality, these puzzles are a mixed bag of overly simple inputs and frustratingly specific ones that left me scratching my head saying, “Really? It wouldn’t take this?” A scoring system exists via an in-game phone to encourage coming up with unique, creative answers to puzzles. While a nice thought, the scoring feels out of place. For a genre that eschews traditional game elements in favor of immersive storytelling, having arbitrarily contrived numbers flooding a corner of the screen takes away from the game more than it adds to it.
Further marring the experience is a host of technical issues ranging from small to severe. Movement is stiff, with delayed acceleration making navigation feel sluggish and unresponsive. The game struggles to maintain a consistent frame rate, dipping well below 30 on a computer with specs comfortably exceeding the minimum requirements listed on the Trackless Steam page.
Early on in the game, I found my character stuck in place with no way to move. After a quick reset, I found myself staring back at the same train cabin I’d started the game in. The game hadn’t saved any of my progress. Thinking I must have overlooked a manual save option somewhere, I scoured the game for a settings menu. Aside from a resolution selection and full-screen toggle, accessed via an in-game phone, no save option presented itself to me. It was only later, wandering around to find my next objective, that I stumbled upon an inconspicuous circle with an outline for a person's feet. Turns out, this was a save point.
While save points are common features in video games, most games make a conscious effort to explain how they work. Trackless elects instead to have you guess, a common trend I found throughout the game. With little in the way of hints, aside from the occasional on-the-nose piece of dialogue, I ended up brute forcing my way through many of the game's tougher encounters, inconsistent frame rate and wonky movement in tow.
Technical hiccups don't necessarily make or break a game if the rest of its underlying components are compelling. However, the frequency and severity of the ones I encountered within just the first half hour of Trackless were simply too serious to ignore. Combined with inconsistent design choices and a frustrating level of difficulty, my enthusiasm for Trackless waned the more I played.
A large part of the appeal of adventure games stems from their storytelling, and I would be remiss not to mention the enthralling world that Trackless establishes for itself. Set in a near-future dystopia, Trackless is host to a variety of intriguing characters with engaging personalities. Conversing solely through static text boxes, the denizens of Trackless provide sharp, poignant dialogue that helps bring them to life in spite of their stoic, preset standing positions throughout the game world.
Trackless provides a glimpse into a fascinating world. Its intriguing lore and phenomenal soundtrack encouraged me to see the game through from beginning to end. Ultimately, however, its performance issues and rough difficulty spikes hindered it for much of the journey. Poorly optimized, buggy, and unwieldy, Trackless lacks the polish of the strong adventure titles it looks to emulate.